A Look Back at Education and Activism in AZ by Michael O’Donnell

In the 2016 General Election, fully 18 per cent of Latinos voted for Donald J. Trump, a candidate who suggested that being of Mexican heritage impairs the execution of professional responsibilities.[1] For almost 1 in 5 Latinos, Trump’s hostility to those of Mexican heritage, in itself, did not motivate them to vote for the opposing candidate.

Yet, this divergence of opinion has a long-standing history;  to observe Mexican Americans in Arizona, even at the height of the Chicano era, demonstrates the complexity of Mexican American, and for that matter Latino, racial politics. Competing opinions about assimilation, Spanish language use, and cultural heritage limited the efforts of activists to develop a shared pan-racial affinity.

In 1968 and 1969, students at Phoenix Union High School walked out of their classes twice in little over a year. They deliberately orchestrated a boycott; on the second occasion, this demonstration lasted 23 days. Eugene Marin, the Governor’s portfolio holder for Mexican American affairs, chastised Chicanos for their involvement in organizing these protests.  ‘The “Chicanos”, he argued ‘strut around under the umbrella of an illusion (a false pride really), having heard only of their heritage and their distant ancestors.’

‘Student Rally at Phoenix Union High School’, The Voice of the City, 15/10/1970, Rose Marie and Joe Eddie Lopez Papers, Chicano Research Collection, Arizona Stet University Archives, MSS 130, Box 3, Folder 2.


The Chicanos in Phoenix he wrote of were most politically active in the city’s southern neighbourhoods, which were densely populated with Mexican Americans. The centre of Chicano activism was the Sacred Heart Church. It was here that the Barrio Youth Project, a community organization, worked to help Mexican Americans learn skills to improve their job prospects and access employment. It was also here that Chicanos provided schooling for students during the boycott of Phoenix Union High School. They developed a curriculum to address the deficiencies they saw in the education of Mexican American students in the public school system. The syllabus not only promoted classes on Mexican history and culture but crucially provided a bilingual education. The absence of bilingual instruction was central to their criticism of Phoenix Union High School.

‘Outside Students Back Boycott’, Arizona Republic, 29/10/1970.

The attainment gap between Mexican Americans and Anglos throughout this period was undeniable. Mexican Americans in Arizona typically obtained three fewer years education than their Anglo peers. Yet, amongst Mexican Americans there were differing explanations as to why this disparity existed and how it could best be remedied.

Chicanos argued that Mexican Americans must organize to overcome the legacy of colonialism that suppressed the use of Spanish, which had persisted since 1848. These forces of Anglo domination, Chicanos argued, had tangible consequences for Mexican Americans living in deprived south Phoenix neighbourhoods. For example, Father Moreno, the pastor of the Sacred Heart Church, spoke of how:

‘The Mexican American has been raped of his psychology and his ideals . . . the young are caught between the Mexican and Anglo cultures and don’t fit in either one.’ [2]

Chicanos argued that greater acceptance of bilingualism and their Mexican heritage was an essential precursor for improving education, prosperity and political opportunities.

Yet, this was not an opinion shared by all; even amongst Mexican Americans there was disagreement about the causes of Mexican American under-attainment, and the possible solutions. Eugene Marin believed progress was more likely to be achieved through a role model strategy, namely ‘giving the Spanish-speaking community status symbols – people in business or high posts that had not been attained before.’[3] He was not a lone voice of dissenting opinion.

The Vesta Club, of which Marin was a member, aimed to be an enabler of this strategy. Membership of the club was restricted to Spanish-speaking people in Phoenix who had completed a four-year degree and had not been involved in radical political activities. The Club initiated new members with a ceremony which included taking a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag. Though not large in number, Vesta members enjoyed access to influential state politicians; numerous Mayors of Phoenix and the Governor of Arizona attended their events. They also invited the Governor of the Mexican state of Sonora to address their annual dinner on one occasion.

Although the Club shared the same goals as other Mexican Americans and Chicano activists, they believed that these should be pursued through different means. For example, they administered a scholarship program that awarded an $8,000 grant to high-achieving Mexican American students. Vesta members believed that Mexican Americans in Arizona would achieve social progress if they adhered to higher social and cultural standards. They believed in renouncing the use of Spanish and full assimilation in Anglo society.


This clear divergence of opinion demonstrates the complexity of writing about a singular Mexican American identity or racial politics. Although both Chicano activists and Vesta Club members had protested discrimination against Mexican Americans, they understood Arizonan society, and their place within it, very differently.

These differing worldviews have, perhaps, narrowed over time. The rise in anti-immigrant politics in states such as California and Arizona seems to have created a stronger racial affinity amongst Latinos. The coalescence of this affinity amongst disparate groups will determine if and when Latinos become a decisive force in national politics.

Thanks to Michael for this interesting look at education in Arizona in the late 1960s. Definitely resonates today, not least with the banning of ethnic studies thanks to SB2281.


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[1] Sanchez, Gabriel and Barreto, Matt A., Washington Post, [Online], 11/11/2016, Last Accessed: 11/07/2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/11/11/in-record-numbers-latinos-voted-overwhelmingly-against-trump-we-did-the-research/?utm_term=.2e7e99fd01d4

[2] Bommersbach, Jana, ‘Teen-agers life in barrio is set in a mold of failure’, Arizona Republic, 30/04/1972.

[3] Marin, Eugene Acosta, ‘A Challenge For Phoenix – I’. Arizona Republic. 08/12/1969. Arizona State University, Chicano Research Collection, MSS 336, Box 26, Folder 12.

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